Summer Reading Recommendations from the English Department


What is the English Department Reading?

Need some summer break reading suggestions? Check out these ideas from TCU English faculty members Daniel Gil, David Colón, Rima Abunasser and others.


I just finished reading Sinan Antoon’s self-translated novel, The Corpse Washer, a heartbreaking meditation on life and death in war-torn Iraq. Jawad Kazim is the son of a Shiite mghaysil, a corpse washer, dedicated to the tradition and ritual of washing the dead and preparing them for burial. After losing his brother in the Iraq-Iran War, Jawad decides to go to art school and to abandon the family business. However, the harsh reality of the Gulf Wars and the ongoing US occupation bring him back to the dead who, in ever-increasing numbers, need to be ushered to the next world. The novel is spare and poetic, highlighting the stark loneliness of life under siege. Jawad, a modern day Charon, is a silent, trapped man who struggles with love, faith, family, and politics. But he finds art in the solitude and ritual of death and through him we see the tiniest glimmer of hope for a civilization in peril.  This is a gorgeous novel, a necessary and personal addition to one of our world’s darkest, most complex chapters.


The most recent book I’ve read (that’s to say, this week) is Hugo García Manríquez’s Anti-Humboldt: A Reading of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a book that couldn’t be more timely. Twenty years after NAFTA was passed, García Manríquez took the text of NAFTA and produced an “erasure poem” with it: he reproduced the pages of NAFTA, lightened the color of the text to gray, and then boldfaced in black print selected words and phrases within the text, on each page, to compose found poems within this rather tedious and wholly administrative document. The Litmus Press edition is bilingual–García Manríquez has done this in both the English and Spanish versions of NAFTA and they are paired in this volume. The poems that emerge from NAFTA, thanks to García Manríquez’s hand, range from disheartening to funny, sympathetic to absurd. This conceptualist work challenges the reader to reconsider creativity and artistic skill while revisiting the terms of NAFTA and its context, a context that has become salient once again in our current political moment.


I am reading My Struggle, a 4000 page Norwegian novel written by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The novel is the story of Knausgaard’s everyday life as he struggles to find time and focus to write the novel that eventually becomes My Struggle itself. One of the things that’s interesting about the novel is that time slips around in it as Knausgaard follows his memories wherever they lead, so that from the “present moment” in which he is writing the novel he will suddenly slip back ten, twenty or even thirty years to tell about something that happened to him earlier in his life. Because the novel is so driven by memories, and because what happened to Knausgaard in the distant past is always experienced by him as being as vivid and real as what is happening to him in the “now time” of the novel, My Struggle has often been compared to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I am struck by some differences, though, especially in the attitude of the novel toward everyday life.  Whereas Proust’s everyday experiences are valued by him as a way of generating intense, aesthetic experiences and reveries, Knausgaard wants to take seriously the most banal, everyday reality of life for its own sake. This leads him to give detailed accounts of doing everyday chores like cooking, cleaning, taking care of his children, ordering food in restaurants, painting an apartment, smoking, driving a car, and so on, as though he wants to notice—and to make his readers notice—the strange fascination of all the everyday actions and experiences that we hardly pay any attention to. In a sense, the novel tries to achieve the same engagement with the present moment that meditation or yoga or prayer try to achieve, though in Knausgaard’s case the “present” that he wants to focus on is every moment in his life rather than the one, fleeting moment of the actual present. One of the reasons I am interested in My Struggle is that it seems to represent a new departure in the history of the modern European novel as a literary form. The modern European novel was invented in the 17th century; scholars usually think that Cervantes’s Don Quixote (part I was published in 1604) was the first modern European novel. From Don Quixote onward, the European novel has tried to do two things that are related to one another but also different. On the one hand, European novels have sought ever better ways to depict the psychological and emotional reality of an individual psyche experiencing and responding to the world. On the other hand, European novels have also tried to be ever more inclusive in capturing the whole complex, heterogeneous, interconnected world populated by many different kinds of people. It seems that with My Struggle the European novel has undergone a decisive new departure in which you can catch sight of the complex, heterogeneous, interconnected whole of the world only by obsessively diving into the singular experience of a single life. In that sense, My Struggle might be an artistic effort to redeem the navel-gazing of contemporary social media culture in which people obsessively share the most trivial details of their lives. The gamble of My Struggle is that by going all the way into the navel of a single, ordinary life for 4000 long pages we can, in the end, catch a glimpse of the beautiful, heartbreaking whole that is our shared modern world.


During the semester I have little time to read for pleasure or research, as most of my time is taken up by reading for classes. This semester I’m teaching British and Irish Poetry Since 1900 and Major British Writers, so I’ve been reading collections of poetry, novels, plays and essays by John Keats, Mary Shelley, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Anna Wickham, Stevie Smith, Basil Bunting, T.S. Eliot, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and others. However, I manage to squeeze in some books I’m not teaching, and have just read Glasshouses, by Stuart Barnes, and The Herring Lass, by Michele Cahill. Glasshouses and The Herring Lass are two new collections of poetry by Australian poets, just published in October. Much of my research focuses on Australian literature and poetry, so I try to read as many new works from those fields as I can. Glasshouses is Barnes’ debut collection, and the manuscript won the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia. Barnes writes brilliant, stunning poems using a variety of experimental techniques, including sampling and remixing the work of other poets, such as Sylvia Plath, John Donne, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson, as well as lyrics from bands like The Cure and Pulp.

The Herring Lass is Cahill’s fourth collection of poetry; she also writes short fiction and essays. Cahill is of Goan Indian ancestry, was born in Kenya, and has lived in the UK and Australia, so her poetry is unsurprisingly transnational and often addresses issues such as diaspora, identity, crossing boundaries, loss, belonging and identity, which are all obsessions of mine, so I find her work fascinating. Cahill has won multiple awards for her poetry and fiction, and I rate her as one of the world’s best contemporary poets writing in English. The books by Barnes and Cahill are both readily available in the United States, and I encourage everyone to seek out their work.


I just finished Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a sweeping, ambitious, and powerful novel–her debut novel, no less!–about two sisters from different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. In 300 pages and spanning just as many years, Gyasi shows the disparate branches of the family tree from what follows when one sister is sold into slavery and the other is married to an Englishman living in the Cape Coast Castle. We follow their descendants through generations in America or through warfare in Ghana, showing with stunning prose the impacts of the horrors and complexities from the slave trade on both continents.  The novel is a shattering, necessary, and beautiful read, or as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “an inspiration.”


I recently finished How to Be Both by Ali Smith, a book that deals with sexuality, history, mourning, music, gender, art, vision, and Latin (and English) conjugation. As you might guess from the title, the book is a diptych (two distinct parts adding up to a new whole), which sounds weirder than it feels when reading it. In fact, there are two versions of the book in which the two halves are in a different order. Somehow, Smith makes it work. It¹s rare to find a piece of experimental fiction that’s so emotionally moving. Smith balances formal innovation with narrative necessities to create something special and intriguing.


Most of the works I’ve been reading have been dramas. So, of course I’m reading a play, but I’m also re-reading a novel that I’ve wanted to return to for some time.  Both texts take up the subject of geography and travel, something I love to read about. August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is a play that features a community of African Americans comprising former slaves and those who have left various places in the south for northern areas, particularly Pittsburgh, PA. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison features a young man whose family migrated to a northern US city during the Great Migration of the early 1900s and his journey to find his identity by returning to the south in the 1960s. Both works are so rich in language and detail. They give one the sense of being transported not just across time, but across multiple geographical spaces. I am drawn to literature that emphasizes place because landscapes and locations are so rich in character. Most significantly, when writers who come from displaced groups write about their relationship to the land, there is so much to learn about how place and identity come together in important ways.


I am recommending a book that was recommended to me. Once or twice a month, at least, I speak with my long-time (but now retired) colleague, Richard E. Young. During our delightful conversations he unfailingly mentions books that I should have read but never did and this is one of them: The Mind’s Best Work by D.N. Perkins (Harvard University Press). This 1981 volume is something of a classic; it dives into waters that many of us are hesitant to enter: the nature of creativity and invention. Ashamed that I had not read this work, I immediately ordered it and have tried to treat myself to at least a few pages each day. The Mind’s Best Work examines competing paradigms about how we create. Some view creativity as a magical, borderline mystical experience while others see it as almost algorithmic in a systematic methodology of discovery. Normally I do not recommend a book until I finish it. That said, although I am currently only in the middle of this one, i can already see why it is a classic. I have no doubt that I will continue to be enriched and engaged as the pages flow by and I read more about how individuals such as Poe, Beethoven, Picasso, Coleridge and Einstein did their best work. Perhaps I also enjoy this book because it brings back such great memories. Some of the individuals and work done on the subject was being done while I was involved in problem-solving projects at Carnegie Mellon University and it is fascinating now to see these achievements of my former colleagues in an historical context. I suppose I am also intrigued by this work because I had the opportunity of being associated with such incredibly creative thinkers during my career and I have always been fascinated with how their minds worked. For a brief time, for example, I was in the same department as playwright Arthur Miller; I also spent many years in the company of Nobel Prize winner Herb Simon. These two individuals came to creativity in markedly different ways but their expertise in unique thinking is undeniable. I recommend The Mind’s Best Work as a stimulating, well-written foray into a subject that will itself engage any mind that has considered this topic.


I just finished Alan Price’s The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War, which documents Wharton’s experiences in Paris between 1914 and 1918. I was amazed by Price’s account of the immense, selfless activity Wharton threw herself into over the course of the war, opening and operating three separate charitable institutions for unemployed Belgian seamstresses, displaced children, and tuberculosis victims. Wharton also visited the front itself to gather information to incorporate into articles for American newspapers. Price’s writing is detailed and precise, and he includes letters and diary entries that draw the reader into Wharton’s perspective as she managed large crews of volunteers, fundraised among wealthy Americans, and grieved the losses of loved ones. I recommend this biography to anyone interested in WWI-era literature or the roles of women during wartime.


“I just finished The Novel Habits of Happiness, by Alexander McCall Smith, one of the Isabel Dalhousie series of novels.  Dalhousie is a moral philosopher who edits a philosophical review in Edinburgh, and is now also the mother of a four-year-old son along with her husband Jamie.  One of the gratifying dimensions of this series, amidst McCall Smith’s prolific output, is that the novel folds in moral questions or deliberations page by page rather than in overtly didactic set pieces.  When is it ethical to tell only part of what one knows to a family member or someone in pain?  When it is justifiable, and when not, to resent the actions and manner of a colleague?  What factors should be weighed in deciding whether to have a second child?   The story takes up these issues and more, and manages to be life affirming and engaging without becoming saccharine or simplistic.”


Human Resources by Josh Goldfaden

“I recommend this book of fiction for a couple reasons: first, because the stories in it are playful, witty, and observant, featuring absurdist humor and ambitious settings and situations, in the vein of George Saunders or Karen Russell. One story focuses on a longtime animal photographer who, now retired, fixates on spying on the neighbors rather than exotic wildlife. Another story features a band of contemporary pirates, on a mission to reform their ways. The second reason I recommend this book: Josh was a friend and colleague back in graduate school, and we lost him this November. The holidays can be such a strange brew of the festive and frustrating: diving into these pages will trigger some deeply serious guffaws in all who read them. And who wouldn’t want to ring in a new year with a laugh or ten?”


“It is not uncommon for me to be reading multiple books (and genres for that matter) at the same time, and right now is no exception. I recently started The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (I can’t believe it’s taken me so long either). With Afghanistan as its backdrop, it chronicles the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant. After an unspeakable event occurs, the dynamics of their relationship are forever changed and the boys are separated. The history of Afghanistan between the 1970’s and 2007 is played out in the storyline, with the main character being drawn back to his war-torn homeland in a search for atonement.”

Vermont-Plays-Annie-Baker“I’m also about 30 pages into Annie Baker’s The Vermont Plays.  This is the first collection of plays by this Obie Award-winning playwright. The collection includes: Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, Nocturama, and Body Awareness. All four plays take place in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont. Beyond that, the theme that connects them, according to the author, is that they are all in some way about ‘how art can save your life’ although when writing them, Baker says that was not consciously intentional.”


“I am reading: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Historian Jill Lepore reconstructs the life of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s favorite sister, from her letters and other historical sources.  While Benjamin was one of the most well-known and prolific thinkers and writers of the eighteenth century, Jane was minimally educated and the surviving documentary record of her writings is scarce.  With engaging and sensitive storytelling, Lepore shows us how one woman’s life in early America is worth recovering.”


“I just read Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch. It’s a biography of Derek Boogaard, a professional hockey player who overdosed on painkillers and alcohol at 28. It is an exposé on concussions, violence and drug abuse in a culture of hyper-masculinity. I would recommend it; the underlying topics involved in the book are important and finally becoming more and more public. Discussions of masculinity—especially how young men are raised to act and be unhealthy—are becoming more common and necessary.”


“As always, I am reading the last few issues of The New Yorker, which still publishes long, deeply researched pieces that are beautifully written. I am also about 100 pages into Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I admire the way Strayed creates a “self” who, as narrator, both recreates the drama of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone and also gives us insight into that younger, anguished self who did the hiking. It makes me want to find out how she wrote the story– how much comes from the journal she kept, how much from her recollection in tranquility.”